We knew before venturing into the Waitomo Glowworm Caves that we would be floating through the caves on inner tubes. The image I – and as it turned out, several others – had in mind was of walking into a big cave with a river running through it, sitting down on my inner tube and gently floating through a magical cave full of glowworms. Turns out, we had no idea what we were in for and nothing could have prepared us for the astonishing caving adventure ahead…
Our New Zealand adventure began after a brief stint in Los Angeles when we finally touched down in the Land of the Long White Cloud at Auckland airport around 5 am local time. You’d think after 13 hours of flying and our inner clocks being thrown into a whirlwind thanks to crossing the International Date Line, we would’ve just headed to the hotel to sleep. You’d be wrong. Instead, we got straight on a bus headed towards the famed Waitomo Glowworm Caves.
After stopping for breakfast and admiring the scenery from the bus windows for a couple of hours, we arrived at Waitomo. Our team was divided into two groups as there were too many of us to all go into the caves at one time. The first order of serious business was stuffing ourselves into wetsuits, which is not as easy as it sounds.
We were loaded into a van with our inner tubes at the ready and headed to a small river with a ladder to practice jumping off a waterfall. That’s right, we had just learned that as part of our trek through the caves we would have to jump off a couple of waterfalls. Backward. With our inner tubes. Landing in water. In the darkness. That was our first warning that this was maybe not going to be quite the leisurely float we had been expecting.
The practice run should have been the easy part. The only problem with jumping with an inner tube is that you have to hold it with both hands, which means you have no hands free to hold your nose to keep water from going in. Jumping backward with the tube also means that there is a massive back wave of water heading straight for your face as soon as you land. Now if you also forget to hold your breath, this perfect combo means inhaling about a gallon of river water, and I’m exaggerating only a little.
Coughing and spluttering we pulled ourselves together and loaded in the van once again, this time heading to the cave entrance. There are several entrances to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, including one where you can just walk in the cave, following built pathways. Ours was not that entrance. The climb down the massive rocks to the narrow mouth of the cave was our second clue that this was definitely going to be more of an extreme sport than we were expecting.
Instead of just walking to a river and floating down, what followed was a caving adventure unlike anything we’ve ever experienced. Advancing through the caves on slippery and jagged rocks, often at least in knee-deep cold water, was slow work. Luckily our two guides were excellent in helping us navigate the treacherous path. When we reached the first waterfall and had to jump, I’m ashamed to admit that I chickened out. Still traumatized by the practice jump, I chose to slide down the rocks on my butt. Thankfully Tiia was braver than me, so at least one of us has the claim to fame of having had the full experience.
By the time we got to the second waterfall, I had psyched myself up enough to make the jump. The fact that I was getting tired of climbing up and down the precarious rocks might have also been a factor in the decision. This time I also remembered to hold my breath so it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected and the feeling of having overcome myself was an incredible rush.
The second jump was the beginning of what was overwhelmingly the most amazing part of our adventure. We were all floating in our inner tubes and were instructed to grab on to the legs of the person behind us to form a “human eel”. We then turned off our helmet lights and were floating in complete darkness. Our guides were both at the front and back of the pack to make sure no one got lost, and the one on the front started pulling our whole group through the darkness. Soon we started spotting lights in the darkness somewhere high up above us and suddenly realized the entire cave ceiling was full of glowworms! This was the leisurely float we had all been looking forward to and afterward, I could only describe the experience as “f***ing magical” – it was just that incredible.
We kind of wished that the glowworm float would never come to an end, but sooner than we liked we had to turn on our lights again and get up from our tubes. There was still a short trek ahead before floating through the rest of the cave – sadly without glowworms this time – and emerging into the bright sun of the New Zealand jungle.
Now I know I’ve made it sound like going through the Waitomo Glowworm Caves was some terrifying ordeal and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a little scary and quite strenuous at times. Several of us had fears about tight spaces and heights and at least one team member is even afraid of water. Yet we all overcame our fears and overcame ourselves to have this amazing bonding experience together and it brought us even closer together as friends.
I’m so happy we got to do this together with these amazing people and that we have those beautiful memories of floating under a canopy of glowworms. The feeling of stepping out of your comfort zone and conquering your fears is intoxicating, and as Gish is in large part all about doing just that, we can’t think of a more suitable activity for the winner’s trip.